Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

“It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” The well-known slogan of The Christophers is also something of an operating philosophy at EchoLight Studios, the highly-regarded film production and distribution company founded by missionary Bobby Downes in 2011.  Instead of complaining about things like the coarsening of the culture and the decline of Christian values in movies, Bobby and his partners decided to do something about it. So, they created a full-scale business organization designed to both empower Christian artists and to deliver content to audiences craving some values at the heart of their entertainment.

As readers of this space already know, the company has been putting its money where its mouth is with plans to spend up to $1 million to produce and distribute a new work from the Best Film winner in this year’s 168 Film Project, a $250K investment in support of the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival (SAICFF) and a multi-million dollar production and distribution deal over five years with the Liberty University Cinematic Arts program.

I recently spoke with Bobby Downes about EchoLight’s commitment to nurturing up-and-coming Christian filmmakers. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

JWK: What is the overall mission of EchoLight Studios?

BOBBY DOWNES: For me really, it starts back in the 1990’s when my wife and I traveled to over 20 countries as missionaries using the arts to communicate God’s heart. We really found that the arts opened people’s hearts up. Before you can give the information, you really have to provide the inspiration. We found that the arts transcend cultural barriers and language barriers. The arts are really powerful.

…We were doing 350 concerts a year, sometimes to 10,000 people, sometimes to ten people, but when we came home off the road in 1999, my brother (Kevin Downes) was working in Los Angeles as a filmmaker/producer and an actor. You might know him from the movie Courageous. He was one of the lead actors in that movie.

We produced a movie called The Moment After  in 1999. It took about a year to make the movie and it was the first movie to air in Afghanistan — the first Christian movie to air in Afghanistan, outside of Ben-Hur and The 10 Commandments. That’s when it hit me — that I could have a whole lot more impact on many more people’s lives by making one movie than I could doing 350 concerts in a year. So, we started making movies.

Since 1999 we’ve made over a dozen feature films. Some of them are distributed by Fox, some by Sony Pictures. Through the last decade, we’ve not only been producing movies and getting them out there through a site we designed and created in 1999 called ChristianCinema.com. It’s the largest site for Christian movies on the planet. We spent a decade scouring the Earth looking for every filmmaker that’s made a Christian movie. Their movies are in the database and are available (on the site). They can go there and buy them. They can also rent them in a Netflix-style way and then we’re also in Beta right now with a few of our subscribers with a screening platform. So, they’ll be able to — just like with Netflix — to (stream) them on their device.

JWK: Is ChristianCinema.com completely separate from EchoLight?

BD: It’s a part of EchoLight now and I’m kinda getting to that part of the story which is (that) after making movies for a decade and having the studios distribute our movies, we found we needed something more that we just weren’t getting out of Hollywood. And that is, Number One, a real sense of collaboration between ourselves and the marketers and distributors of our product because as Christians we know why we made the movie, we know who our target audience is and we really feel like we should be a part of that process. So, EchoLight was created so that we could have deep collaboration with our content creators.

The second reason EchoLight was created is because we’re really passionate about providing Christian artists with the resources they need – basically, the canvas and the paint brushes and the paint to create a beautiful picture. So, we’re financing pictures, we’re financing projects, helping them get produced and then we’re distributing them and we’re marketing them worldwide across all platforms — theatrical, DVD, television, digital. So, it’s the first time we’ve ever seen a completely vertically-integrated Christian movie studio that does it all.

That cohesiveness allows us to create a culture where we have priorities — being able to tell great stories, excellence, quality, being able to be truthful and honest in our storytelling…The information of the Gospel is important in these movies. Believe me, I’ve made movies that are very evangelistic to movies that are more parable-type… I’ve done them all and we’ve learned over the years that the core Christian consumer in America really appreciates that explicit Gospel message in their movie. What no one appreciates — whether a Christian or not — is when you communicate the Gospel and it doesn’t feel honest or truthful…We’ve worked with people in Hollywood, we’ve worked with all kinds of people and I’ve never found anyone ever offended by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What I have found is that people are often offended by things our Christian culture produces.

JWK: Why do you think that is?

BD: Because the two are very different things. And this is important to understand when engaging in evangelism. Today in North America we have a Christian culture. What’s culture? That’s the question you have to ask yourself, whether it’s Christian culture or whatever. Culture is…anything from art to clothing to music to movies. It’s the fabric of what we are. In the Christian culture we have our own Christian authors, we have our own Christian celebrities, we have our own Christian music, we have our own Christian gift cards, we have our own Christian shirt companies. We have our own Christian everything, right? And that’s a culture — and that has nothing to do with Jesus, as far as relationship with Jesus and knowing the One, True Living God. Are those things beneficial? Yes, they are. They’re beneficial to the Christian culture. But, for people outside of the Christian culture, there’s just not the benefit that we think there is. I think often times, when we wear the culture but we don’t wear the Love of Jesus, it doesn’t ring true.

JWK: Do you find that sometimes Christian films make such a point of quoting directly from the Gospel that they can come as sounding unnatural and stilted? That you can get across the basic message more realistically without necessarily quoting directly from the Bible?

BD: Exactly — and that’s the point I’m trying to make is that it should ring true. No matter if you’re an atheist or whatever your faith background is, when the Word of God comes forward through these characters in a way that is germane to the characters and is honest and truthful, it should draw people in. You know, the Gospel is something that’s beautiful. If the Gospel were offensive then I would have never come to Christ. You would have never come to Christ if it was offensive. But you came and I came and were drawn into a relationship with God because it was beautiful. It drew me in. It was healing. It was something beneficial to my life and that’s the Gospel that I want to communicate through the arts to this world that is in desperate need of this relationship with God…We’ve seen hints of it  and glimpses of it in some movies. But I want to encourage a whole generation of young people that are artists, to challenge them to make films in this space that are honest and truthful.

JWK: And you’re doing that through 168 Film Project, the San Antonio Christian Film Festival and the Liberty University Cinematic Arts program.

BD: That’s right. We’re planting seeds in strategic places where the soil can be cultivated by our partners…We are providing the resources and experience (to) a new generation of storytellers (who view) filmmaking as a ministry where quality is of utmost importance and the ethos of ministry behind the camera is just as, if not more, important, as in front of the camera. We know that the cream rises to the top and EchoLight wants to work with the best storytellers this generation has to offer. As you know, storytellers for generations have shaped cultures. Over $130 million is spent every single weekend at the local box office. That’s a lot of time and attention going toward storytelling and we feel like we empower storytellers to do their best work to tell great stories.

EchoLight, you know…the logo is a flame, a little orange flame.  Our thought is that it only takes a small amount of light to displace a whole lot of darkness and that light will reverberate. It will have a tremendous amount of impact. So, we’re seeing that.

The 168 Film Festival has seen a 300% increase in entries in their programs since we announced the one-million dollar EchoLight Award…So, that’s really exciting. We can see it’s working and we’re motivating anyone from seasoned storytellers that haven’t been given an opportunity all the way to someone who’s just curious and just picks up a pen and camera and says “I want to write and film a movie for the first time.”

JWK: And you’ll help them from start to finish?

BD: That’s right. Everything from A to Z. There’s not a cookie cutter way to do this. Sometime there will be artists that bring the idea, maybe the adaptation of a book or novel or sometimes we have something and we’ll choose to work with a certain producer that we enjoy working with to get the film made. But we’ve been fielding a lot of inquiries from people.

JWK: Do you have any plans to develop television?

BD: We’re open to creating content that has an impact on people’s lives. We’re not limited by the format or the platform whatsoever.

JWK: Where do you see EchoLight being five years from now?

BD: Films for families of faith is a huge under-served market. The fact is that this market is in the realm of 250 million people in the USA alone. And we’ve found that people on average have the capacity to watch three or four movies per month. So, we’re ramping up to meet the demand for quality inspirational films for families of faith. In the future, we’re seeing ourselves (putting out) one or two movies every single month — whether on DVD or television or to the theater. That’s going to take a whole lot of creative people…to pull that off but we believe the time is now to do that and we believe there’s a pool of storytellers to pull from.

JWK: So, you think this is a market that is being missed by the mainstream movie studios?

BD: Absolutely.

JWK: So, what’s on the EchoLight slate now? What films can we look for?

BD: We’ve got a movie coming out this spring in theaters called Seasons of Gray. It’s a modern-day retelling of the story of Joseph from the Old Testament and it’s really well done.

YouTube Preview Image

BD: Then there’s The Redemption of Henry Myers (produced by Chad Gundersen)…It’s really the first time we’ve seen an evangelical western…and that’s exciting because it allows us to have action. We’re excited about that film. There’s whole list of other films that we’re in development on that I can talk with you about a little bit later. The main gist of the conversation today is what EchoLight is doing to support and build the community of storytellers. The 168 Project, Liberty University Cinematic Arts and  the San Antonio Christian Film Festival, these are all programs that that we’ve taken time (and) vetted. They’re all on the same page. They’re all (good) at doing what they do. They all serve the community of the people. They all have a common mission in impacting lives…and that’s what we want to do.

JWK: Do you feel you’ve found the next Christian Spielberg? Is the next great director in this group somewhere?

BD: I think of Clayton Miller, for instance whose the filmmaker behind the upcoming The Redemption of Henry Myers. This was his first feature film project. He’s a gifted artist. He’s been a real pleasure to work with for the past year and a half making this film. We’re looking at other projects…That’s how it starts. You start with a small opportunity. There’s that saying that says “When you do good with a little, you’ll be given much.’  We’re trying to plant those kinds of seeds to give first-time filmmakers an opportunity.

JWK: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to touch on?

BD: Thank you for asking. Go to EchoLight.com and ChristianCinema.com and checkout the different movies that are there and what’s coming. We’ve got news and reviews and information on ChristianCinema.com — like over 8,000 syndicated reviews and consumer reviews of titles. So, it’s a really great place to find out what’s going on with Christian movies. I really appreciate your articles and the insight that you give because it’s really important that we, as a community, figure out what we’re gonna do with the arts.  We can sit on the sideline and complain and boycott (or we can participate).

…We are not like the Hollywood studios. We are completely open book. We are collaborative. There are no secrets. We think that if God’s the creator and he’s able to give us more and more ideas, we’re not limited…Part of the paradigm that I’m hoping to change is to create a very collaborative culture where we work together to create great…content in entertainment (and) movies that really inspires people.  I think it’s gonna require something like EchoLight to make the change where we have control over the entire process. That’s really what’s keeping Hollywood from making the change. It’s doing the same thing that it’s done for decades. And the reason is  because it’s a financial model that keeps it from changing. The financial model is such that they win 100% and the independent filmmakers — the artists — are the ones that end up losing. You can only change that when you develop the content, you finance it, you produce it, you do the entire thing. That’s the only way we’re gonna be able to do this thing.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus